Billy Lynn’s bogus journey
So there’s this book out. It was authored by Ben Fountain, is called Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, and has gotten lots of attention. It just may be the long-awaited Great Iraq War Novel. Karl Marlantes, a veteran author I highly respect, has praised it. The book has been compared to Catch-22.
In a nutshell, here’s the plot:
Billy Lynn’s squad gets into a firefight in Iraq. One soldier is killed. Others perform heroic actions and are awarded Silver and Bronze Stars for Valor. A Fox News camera crew is embedded with the squad and puts video of the firefight on the internet. America goes nuts. Billy’s squad is brought back to the US for a “Victory Tour”. Hilarity ensues. The highlight of the Victory Tour is a trip to the Super Bowl. Billy and his soldiers are treated like royalty. However, everyone involved in the tour is just using the soldiers to achieve their own selfish goals. The greed and cruelty of American culture is exposed. Poor Billy and his teenage buddies are manipulated, employed as mere props, used up, tossed aside like trash, and sent back to Iraq.
Keep in mind, I’m trying to be objective about this book. I’ve only read the Barnes and Noble free sample, and checked out several reviews. One of those reviews, which spoke about the novel in glowing terms, was from a reviewer I trust (http://indiscriminatecritic.wordpress.com/2012/10/23/book-review-billy-lynns-long-halftime-walk/). This book was a National Book Award finalist, and has just been nominated for a major award in the UK. I found out about the UK award when I went to Fountain’s scheduled appearance at a Houston bookstore, only to be told he cancelled because he was on his way to London.
I have serious problems with this book. The first is that Fountain isn’t a veteran. Yeah, I know, I’m not being fair. Any good writer can write a good war book if he does his research, right? How dare I expect The Great Iraq War Novel to have been written by an Iraq vet. I mean, it’s not like there are millions of Iraq vets around the country who are qualified to write about the war. Oh wait, yes there are. Well, I guess none of us are writing about it. Oh wait. . . yes we are.
Let’s forget all that. I’ve been assured that Fountain spoke to many veterans to make sure he got the technical aspects, jargon and attitudes correct. Fine. Personally, I think a virgin could study sex, interview thousands of people who have had sex, and still not know what sex is really like. But I’ll forget that too.
Next on the list of my hang-ups about this book is this minor, irritating little fact: the vortex of the story, the “Victory Tour” which exposes the greed, corruption and callousness of Bush, Cheney, Fox News and the American public, could not have happened. Billy Lynn and his soldiers are in the firefight one day, a few days later have already been awarded Silver or Bronze Stars, and suddenly find themselves on a plane back to America (with the body of their friend, no less). This is a ridiculous, nonsensical turn of events.
During my deployments, soldiers who received Army Commendation Awards for Valor, which are lower than a Bronze Star, waited months for the approvals to go through. One incident I know of happened in early August, and medals weren’t awarded until November. Another soldier who received a Bronze Star for the same incident didn’t get it until a year after the battle. U.S. Marine Dakota Meyer and Army Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta didn’t get their Medals of Honor until years after the fact.
In other words, soldiers don’t get awards for valor that quickly. There’s an approval process involved, and the higher the award, the longer the process. But, once again, I’ll forgive Fountain’s fictional transgression. Either he didn’t know this fact (and heaven forbid he ask an actual veteran) or he ignored it for plot purposes. I’m a fiction writer myself, and sometimes I’ve skirted the improbable for a plot’s sake. Not the impossible, but the improbable. Fountain went full impossible.
Next on the list is the Victory Tour itself. Iraq was an “economy of force” war, which means we used as few troops as possible to accomplish missions. Small units covered huge swaths of territory, and platoons that by doctrine were supposed to be in physical contact wound up holding isolated outposts miles from sister units. Guys like me on convoy escort teams had three humvees, with nine guys, to escort twenty or thirty civilian supply trucks through hundreds of miles of hostile territory. Every soldier on my team was in a critical role as gunner, driver or vehicle commander; we just didn’t have anyone to spare. In Fountain’s story, Billy’s squad is sent back to America for propaganda purposes, and the question of “who’s covering their sector?” is never addressed. Neither is that fact that our troops haven’t been pulled out mid-deployment for victory tours since maybe World War II.
I’ll forget that too. The fact that a situation probably couldn’t happen is no reason to exclude it from a novel. You can’t make a fictional omelet without breaking the eggs of reality.
Now I get to an obstacle that I just can’t overcome. As I’ve said, I’ve only read part of Fountain’s story. I refuse to buy the book. That’s because I’m hesitant to give money to someone who I think may be insulting our troops.
“Whoa”, you might say. “Why do you think Fountain insulted the troops? He’s actually standing up for the troops, trying to protect them from being used for political purposes. What’s wrong with that?”
Fair question. Here’s my answer. I think it’s insulting because, based on the little bit of the book I’ve read and the reviews I’ve seen, Billy Lynn and his fellow soldiers are portrayed as nothing more than child victims. They’re too young to understand the war, they don’t get the fact that they’re being used by the evil Bush administration to drum up political support, they don’t realize that people don’t actually care about them. They’re just too dumb to know what’s happening.
Lines like these, about one of the soldiers, have been highlighted by a reviewer: “He grew up in a ditch, he don’t know from being cold!” “It’s like giving a pig a Rolex, ma’am, he’s got no appreciation for the finer things in life.” According to the same review, this line is in the book: “Maybe this low-grade band of brothers isn’t ‘the greatest generation’, but they are surely the best of the bottom third percentile of their own somewhat muddled and suspect generation.”
Until I read this, I wasn’t aware I was part of the bottom third of anything. I have to wonder, was this characterization supposed to apply to all of us? I served with many highly intelligent, well-educated soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan. The vast majority of those guys either had successful careers and families back home, or were waiting to complete their military service before starting families and beginning careers. They weren’t losers in the mythical “bottom third percentile”.
Come to think of it, is there some reason Fountain chose the name “Billy Lynn” for his protagonist? Does that name evoke a down-home redneckishness that Fountain thinks epitomizes all our soldiers? I’d bet the answer is yes.
My impression might be wrong. Maybe Fountain doesn’t think our troops are too stupid to know better. However, I’ve seen this kind of thinking so often I’m not surprised by it, and have come to expect it from highly-educated people. When my cynicism is flowing freely, I suspect much of their “support” for troops is actually pity. Pity for us poor, young, uneducated, mostly minority children who were tricked into joining the military because we had no other options.
I’ve heard a woman with a PhD speak of the “poverty draft”, which was the military’s alleged targeting of poor teenagers (according to her, “There are no recruiting stations in Beverly Hills”). People like her, who like Fountain were never in the military, seem to think they understand those of us who made the conscious decision to serve in the military during wartime. Gee, thank God they’re here to save us from our own decisions.
To Fountain’s credit, he acknowledged his lack of credentials during a November 13th New York Times interview: “Since I’ve never served in the military, never been in a shooting war, I felt like I had to earn the right to write a book like this. I’m still not satisfied that I had the right to do it.” He also said, after talking about receiving praise from vets, “. . . I don’t doubt that there are plenty of current and former soldiers who’ve read a couple of pages and chucked it aside in disgust or boredom. But I don’t hear from them, or at least I haven’t yet.”
Well, he’s hearing from me now. I’ll address the remainder of this post directly to Mr. Fountain, in the probably vain hope that he’ll actually read it and care what a combat vet has to say.
Mr. Fountain, I assure you that even though you never served, you have the right to write war novels. Likewise, even though I’m not a college guy, I have the right to write a book about what being in a fraternity is really like. In this country, anyone can write any stupid book about anything. The First Amendment, rather than anything we’ve done, guarantees it.
In the NYT interview, you mentioned that Leo Tolstoy wasn’t even alive during the Napoleonic era, yet still wrote War and Peace. You used this to prove your lack of military background doesn’t mean you can’t write a good war novel. However, Tolstoy had two huge advantages over you. First, he was an actual war veteran, having served in the Crimean War. Second, and more importantly, the soldiers he wrote about were dead. When his book was published, few if any veterans of the war he wrote about were alive to point out what was real and what was absolute crap. In a hundred years, someone can write a World War II novel about a lesbian who leads the invasion of Normandy from her wheelchair, and no WW2 vets will be around to figuratively stab the author in the face for it. Unfortunately for you, there are still plenty of Iraq vets around who may take exception to your depiction of who we are.
But what really pisses me off, or potentially pisses me off, is that you think you have the authority to tell anyone what the war/soldiers/homecoming/whatever is really like. If your book was comedy or something inconsequential, I wouldn’t be bothered. But from what I gather, you wrote this book to make a statement, to tell some alleged truth about our soldiers, our war, and our country. My gut reaction is that nobody who hasn’t been there can tell the truth about any war. You don’t have to be a soldier in a war to see this truth, but you have to at least visit. I don’t like what Ashley Gilbertson had to say about the Iraq war and our military, but at least his opinions came from firsthand experience.
My last word to you will be partly an apology. I haven’t read your book, so my suspicions and criticism may be completely off. I will read the book if someone gives it to me for free, or if I find it at my library. I’m willing to forgive if you’ll just acknowledge that central tenets of your plot, the light-speed awards and Victory Tour, could not have happened. I’ll praise your writing ability, and admit that I envy your talent. If I read the book and discover that you’ve done us justice, I’ll post an apology on my blog.
However, if I do read the book, this is what I expect to find: it was written by someone who knows nothing of the war, for people who know nothing of the war. I expect it to pander to an audience that openly despises the previous presidential administration and quietly despises our military. I suspect your novel has much in common with the ridiculous movie The Hurt Locker, which received fawning praise from nonveterans and was laughed at by those who had been in Iraq. I think your book will make Billy and his friends look like morons, rather than adult men who freely decided to serve their country in combat. I think you’ve done nothing more than offer us pity disguised as support. I think you’ve committed the same offense you accuse others of; the characters in your novel use Billy’s squad for political purposes, while you, by the same token, use us soldiers as devices to further your own career.
Not that I expect my feelings to matter to you; I’m sure that whatever complaints soldiers have about your book, you’ll happily walk across our backs to the bank and awards stage.
If your book shows that most of us live by the mantra, “My country was at war; I joined the military; I knew what I was doing,” then I congratulate you for your success. But I think you’ve portrayed us as something other than volunteers who willingly chose wartime service and all the pain, anger, and frustration it entails. If that’s the case, if you’ve shown us pity disguised as support, then you can kiss my “bottom third percentile”, proud Iraq veteran ass.
Filed under: Iraq, Writing | 14 Comments
Tags: ben fountain, billy lynn, iraq, veterans